Sunday, June 27, 2010

Going the Distance

On NPR’s “All Things Considered” yesterday, Michele Norris interviewed a blogger in her 20s who had asked older fellow-blogging women to write letters to their 20-year-old selves. Cassie Boorn wanted advice, wisdom and guidance from women who had emerged from their 20s.

I talk to my present self a lot, but talking to my younger self was a great way to take stock, to see what I would do differently — or not. It felt both nurturing and empowering, and some of it surprised me.

Dear 20-year-old Sheri,

I know you’re wavering between that nice guy you work with at summer camp and the cool guy who can dance and tell funny stories — the one you’re dating at college. Why do you think you have to choose? They both have something to offer that you can learn from and enjoy. Two years from now, when you graduate from college and think you should marry one of them, don’t. Be patient.

Swim more laps. Don’t wait until you’re in your 30s to swim farther. Learn to go the distance.

It’s OK to teach commas and "A Raisin in the Sun" to blonde-haired eighth graders for a couple of years. Just know that when you discover newspapers and the adrenaline rush of making deadline for a page-1 story, life will be more fun.

Stop thinking your finances will take care of themselves. Learn about investing.

Know that you will do some chancy stuff as a divorced woman in your 20s (and in your 30s). Rest assured that none of it will do you lasting harm. You’ll also get to sail to Key West, canoe the Boundary Waters, bike in the Netherlands.

Wear that bikini that shows off your flat stomach as often as you want.

It’s OK to throw off the religious dogma you were force-fed. But don’t shut down the spiritual you. Keep asking questions. Don’t get intimidated by people who say they have all the answers. They don't.

Get a dog, or at least make friends with some. Don’t get another cat after your soon-to-be-ex drowns those kittens.

Be patient. The man you will marry for keeps is only three years old.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Delaware River, 1993

Seventeen years ago, so early she’d had to set an alarm, Sheri left her sister’s cabin on the Pennsylvania side of Delaware River and walked the bank to where I waited with a dinged-up aluminum canoe. A week of hard wedding prep had worn us raw, and we looked it. Sleep lines creased our cheeks and weariness showed in our red eyes and in our slow, careful movements. The river was calm, too, that morning, as if it had been working hard all week. Layers of foam snaked across its surface, early fog had lifted to gray the sky. The river burbled around the canoe’s bow as we slid it into the water. Sheri faced me, in a rosey T-shirt and white shorts, her hair tied in a pony tail. I paddled. The river took us; we steered a little.

I was twenty-eight; she was forty-five, married once and divorced. Look at it one way, and that age difference explained our exhaustion. While my parents were glad to cover the rehearsal dinner, Sheri’s parents had already ponied up for a long-ago wedding that hadn’t worked; we’d pay for this one. Those days we lived on my lousy newspaper salary and the few dollars she picked up as an adjunct college instructor, so we kept expenses low and relied on our own handiwork and on the loving generosity
of family and friends. Her sister and brother-in-law let us use the cabin gratis, her nephew was our DJ, she and her sisters cooked, her brother presided as celebrant, her brother-in-law and I uprooted trees to make a parking lot (and later replanted them), and a friend from the area let us raid her garden for bouquets. Ours was an old-fashioned rural American wedding with a community applying its talents to the celebration.

Downriver of the canoe, a truck rumbled over the bridge to Cochecton, New York. I don’t recall us saying much. We’d whisper to mark a bird here, some green beauty there. We grinned at each other a lot. I imagine we talked about wanting coffee.

That afternoon, in a nearby pine grove, we would meet for the “I do’s”. That was seventeen years ago, which means I’m now the same age as Sheri when she married me. Crazy woman. Part of me wants to go back in time and say to her, “You know, he’s a kid.” But another part of me figures that by this age I’ve goofed up and gotten lucky often enough to know one from the other. Sheri at the same age must have known that the canoe ride was a lucky moment, not a goofed-up one.

Me, I was plain dumbfounded.

As I write this, I can hear Sheri saying it’s too long for a blog post. She’s an unsentimental editor, and she’s right. I shouldn’t write so long. But two points.

We first lived together on that river in that cabin, a two-month retreat we owe to the kindness of her sister and brother-in-law. It’s a remote spot, and there we learned to live together without having to think too much about the age difference. We got solid in that place by giving our attention to the river and the wildlife and how best to argue with each other and deciding who would sleep on what side of the bed. No one was around to look at us as an age-aberrant sideshow or to tell us we were the wrong ages to be right.

Second, when we went back for our wedding, all that had changed. Her mother and my grandmother – Depression-era contemporaries – entertained each other on the porch. I played basketball with her nephew, not her brothers. Music choices were more Motown than CBGB. The signs were all around that we were of different generations. But in the days leading up to the wedding, no one came to us, fretting for our future. Maybe some people worried, but they kept private counsel. In that pine grove, beside that river, we felt the necessary love of those we loved. It mattered then, and it matters still. Thanks, y’all.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Coffee cups

The other day Sheri dropped my favorite coffee cup. The cup was empty, because I had finished my coffee. Still, I gasped. History was crashing to the floor. The cup had belonged to my grandparents, a prize they received for donating money to the Polish National Home in Hartford, Connecticut on the occasion of its 60th anniversary in 1990. It was a deep cup, solid and steady, with a smooth lip. It had a few scratches, but I’m a sentimental sort who likes drinking out of a cup from which his grandfather sipped.

Sheri dropped the cup and it made an awful sound against the floor tiles, but it didn’t break.

The next morning when I filled it, a puddle appeared around its base, seeping from a hairline crack. “Sheri,” I said, “I need a new favorite cup.”

So Sheri came home with one. It’s white with colorful polka dots.

“It’s happy,” she said.

“I like an old cup,” I said, pulling one from the cabinet. I picked one we’d bought at Powell’s Book Store in Oregon, a cup that’s coffee stained and scratched, a chip in the handle. “I like a cup that’s been around, that has character. I like a cup that tells stories.”

Sheri said, “I like a fresh cup. A clean one. One that’s new.”

Then we ate breakfast, neither of us realizing that we had also been talking about the reasons we married.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

For Better, for Worse

The Gore split first shocked people, then scared and saddened them.

But they seemed so good together! They were affectionate in public! They’d been through so much in their 40 years together! They’re throwing all of that away?!

Marriage is never a done deal, as Tara Parker-Pope notes in a New York Times piece reflecting on the breakup of Al and Tipper, who say they have simply grown apart. I read “grown apart” as meaning: We just don’t like hanging out together anymore.

Growing apart might seem like more of a bogeyman for age-gap couples like us. I’ve fretted over it, but I’ve found that sharing our different worlds has worked to our advantage.

Example: When Michael moved us from Montana to Arkansas for grad school, it had been more than dozen years since I’d gotten my own master’s degree. I was scared that his grad program would lure him away, that he’d leave me behind. So I made sure I went along for the ride. I went to work every day as a reporter and he went to learn about form and theory of fiction. But we shared the friends, the fun and, yes, the failures from our worlds. These are the tiny accretions from which a marriage grows. During our four years in Fayetteville, we watched same-age marriages crumble all around us among his fellow students. Not ours.

Parker-Pope writes that research reveals (SURPRISE!) that couples who share adventures are happier than those who live the same-old, same-old. As a quality test, she writes, people might ask themselves how many exciting experiences a partner brings to the relationship.

It seems to me it’s not so much about the number of exciting experiences Michael and I bring each other — even a Barnes & Noble date night can be exciting with him. So can watching cardinals at the bird feeder or skinny dipping in a Montana lake or listening to Van Morrison.

Rather, our 17-year age gap guarantees a life of adventures. We’ve always lived in different worlds. His career is gaining momentum; mine is winding down. He rocks out to Pearl Jam; I crank up Bob Dylan. He plays basketball; I do yoga. But those differences rooted in age keep our lives interesting: I’ve learned what a pick-and-roll is; he sometimes joins my yoga class.